Deacon called from one life to another

1/21/2011

God’s plan for Stacey Harwell came as a surprise to her.

“If you would have told me at the beginning of my time in college that I was going to be ordained in the Methodist Church, I would have laughed at you!” said the Rev. Harwell, 25, a deacon at Centenary United Methodist Church in Macon, Georgia.

Harwell’s call into ministry didn’t lead to a pulpit but rather to a ministry that has “one foot in the world and one foot in the church.”

“My calling to be a deacon in The United Methodist Church came during my first year at Candler (School of Theology),” she said. “Among the many things I loved in the ministry was campus ministry and working with the homeless.”

The Rev. Andy Peabody, a deacon who works with families and individuals in crisis, helped Harwell through some “tough theological shifts” and to hear her call to work with the disenfranchised.

“When I met more deacons who all seemed to do the breadth of ministries I was interested in, I was hooked. I wanted to be a deacon.”

Changing hearts

Harwell always wanted to help people “see a God who wanted to help them,” she said.

That led her to Mercer University in Macon where she studied to become a journalist.

At that time she was more focused on, “changing people’s hearts through a great article that exposed them to a new way of thinking or to a dire condition that needed their money or time.”

She wrote for the school’s student newspaper, working her way up to be the editor of the features section.

“We did a lot of in-depth stories on diversity at my university,” she said, “I was also the ‘religion beat’ reporter although we didn't have a section on religion. When I dreamed of what I wanted to do outside of college, I thought perhaps of working at a magazine like Time or Newsweek, writing articles on religion and trying to become an editor there as well.”

Though she was active in campus ministry, it was only after looking back on the experiences that she had working in the church, exploring questions in the Bible and planning worship services that she realized that God was calling her to walk away from journalism.

“Getting into ministry was really more of a gradual process for me rather than a ‘Boom, here it is’ moment,” Harwell said.

While writing her senior paper for journalism she had her “aha” moment when she realized her passion for ministry could be a vocation. She went to Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta to become ordained as a deacon.

“What struck me in that, ‘Why am I doing this?’ moment was just how much ministry had come to mean in my life and just how much I loved doing it. I really felt like God had used me in some significant ways. It was a humbling realization and an acceptance of a job that I was already doing.”

Building relationships

At Centenary United Methodist Church, she is the minister of community building. Her job is to foster relationships both inside and outside of the church.

As part of her duties, she collaborates with the director of the church’s community-ministries program to work at getting men off the streets into a drug-free, alcohol-free house and on a path to stability.

She also works out ways to serve 200 plates of breakfast to hungry people on Sunday mornings.

“In many ways, I am the representative of the church in the world, but I bring an entire congregation with me to every community meeting.”

Beyond the community building, she does other tasks within the church, such as teaching Sunday school classes, planning worship and providing leadership during the service. She also preaches about once a month, oftentimes speaking on the wideness of God’s mercy and social justice. She uses stories and Bible verses to help those who are voiceless find “a God who is on their side.”

“I love my job,” Harwell said. “I can’t believe that a church that at one point was dying (we had 35 people in this church on average about six years ago and now we are up to 150 on average at the 11 a.m. service) can now afford to hire a full-time deacon to do community building.

“This church has incredible leadership, and I am so fortunate to be able to learn from them. Even on bad days when the world seems bent against the people I serve, I love that my job exists to say, ‘Listen up! These people deserve to be heard and to be treated like the children of God they are.’”

**A UMNS Feature by Aaron Cross.  Cross is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn.